Martin Hill & Philippa Jones: The Art of the Sustainable

© Martin Hill and Philippa Jones ‘Stone Circle’ [detail] Whanganui Bay, Lake Taupo, New Zealand, 1994

The work is a way to examine the difference between destructively linear human systems and Nature’s restorative cyclical systems.


The forms and processes of Nature are not shaped by design, but by time. Yet, when viewed as pieces of design, they prove both elegant and efficient. While human designs are created by intention, natural design evolves simply by being sustainable.

But if natural design takes time – eons of it – human design is impetuous and short sighted. This has been especially so since the age of industrialisation, for the aim of human industrial design is money and instant effect. It travels the shortest distance between wanting and making; and when wanting fades and making proves imperfect, the product is cast aside and the voracious appetite of humanity pushes onward, making more and more things, using more and more resources, creating more and more waste. Such a design process is called a linear system and it follows a take-make-discard model of production.

Natural processes, on the other hand, test every variation that arises in the crucible of time. What does not prove efficient and maintainable dies away simply by the fact that it cannot be maintained. What is left, after the test of ages, is design which is not only efficient, but sustainable. To be sustainable, it cannot be wasteful as are the processes of industrial humankind. It must extract maximum effect from minimum materials and energy; and it must recycle perfectly, as the dying remains of one natural form become the means by which another comes into being. Such a design process is called a circular system and it follows a restorative and regenerative model of production.

The New Zealand artists Martin Hill and Philippa Jones have been collaborating over three decades on the creation of ephemeral sculptures and land installations, which they then preserve as photographs. Their images speak to these concerns for sustainable design and circular systems, urging us to recognise the wisdom time has bestowed on Nature and to understand that we too can learn and adopt its processes.

This is no idle matter for, as we are now becoming increasingly aware, the stability of the macro-systems of climate and environment, which form the very space in which we all live and air we breathe, are under severe threat from the intense and wasteful linear systems of the past few hundred years. So intense is this change that archaeologists and geologists, used to measuring the geochronological epochs in millions of years, have named this newest geological era the Anthropocene, because it is the period during which industrialised human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment. On its current trajectory, the Anthropocene promises to be very short indeed. Unless we change the ways we live, and learn from the efficiencies and cycles of natural systems, our linear design will drive us straight into oblivion.

Nonetheless, the art of Martin Hill and Philippa Jones displays great peace and poetry. They address these threatening and potentially overwhelming questions through installations and images of great stillness and simplicity. Their sculptural forms harness the very processes they wish to promote, creating images that are both symbolic and elegantly demonstrative of Nature’s circular systems and truly sustainable design.

Alasdair Foster

© Martin Hill and Philippa Jones ‘Melting Ice 2’ Wanaka, New Zealand 2007
from the ‘Watershed Project’


Alasdair: When did you begin making photographs?

Martin: I have been making photographs since I was about ten years old. My father was an amateur photographer. He made some of his own equipment and used to convert the bathroom into a temporary darkroom at night to make prints. I found the process fascinating.

I studied design at art school and built a career in design, first in London and later in New Zealand. However, in 1992, I set about redesigning my life and working practice. I wanted to use photography as an art form through which to communicate my deep convictions about the importance of ecologically and socially sustainable design.

How did your collaboration begin and how does it work?

Philippa and I met in 1994 on a rock climb. We were both waiting on a tiny ledge in the rock face, while another climber tried to negotiate an overhanging section above us. We became climbing partners and, soon after that, life partners and creative collaborators. Over the years, our working practice has evolved as we share ideas and adventures together. Philippa is very practical and energetic. She is a skilled weaver and basket maker as well as being curious about things, intelligent and well-read.

© Martin Hill and Philippa Jones ‘Woven Willow Sphere’ 2011

How did the process of making and photographing environmental sculptures begin?

As a designer, I developed a holistic perspective. I came to understand that faulty design was what was causing social and ecological unsustainability. So, I decided to redirect my design-thinking to address this problem and its potential solution. The work is a way to examine the difference between destructively linear human systems and Nature’s restorative cyclical systems.

I began experimenting by making ephemeral sculptures in nature that returned to nature, thereby mimicking natural systems that operate without creating waste. Everything dies and becomes food or energy for something else. I used universal symbols to enhance these ideas.

What kind of symbols have you developed?

There have been several symbolic forms used in the sculptures over the years. The predominant one being the circle, because it is so strong physically and visually, and because it is a universal symbol of the circle of life.

The sphere and disc, often a semicircle completed by its reflection in water, are used to represent the earth. For example, ‘Ice Circle’ was made late one winter’s day when ice on a pond was just thick enough to cut and use to make a disc which was propped in the shallow edge of the lake. The still evening air calmed the water, reflecting the half disc perfectly, completing the circle. The prismatic colouration in the ice arose from the low angle of the sun at the time so that the light was refracted in the ice.

What does that symbolic sculpture seek to communicate?

That our earth’s ice cycle must be protected to maintain a liveable climate. 

© Martin Hill and Philippa Jones ‘Autumn Leaf Circle’ Clutha River, Wanaka, New Zealand 2010

These symbols can appear in many forms and materials in your work. I particularly like ‘Autumn Leaf Circle’ for its simplicity and powerful design.

It was made from fallen leaves held afloat by sticks pushed into the shallows where there was an eddy in the Clutha River [the longest river on New Zealand’s South Island]. The negative part of the circle was made by removing fallen leaves from the riverbank. I climbed a tree to make the photograph. The reference here is to the cycling of material through natural systems; something we can emulate in human systems through redesign.

© Martin Hill and Philippa Jones ‘Snow Infinity’ Southern Alps, New Zealand 2002

What about some of the other symbolic shapes?

Other forms used include the spiral, which symbolises growth, and the infinity symbol, which represents eternity or continuous flow. Straight sided forms such as the square, triangle or diamond are used to represent human systems or technology.

This was the case with ‘Solve for Pattern’, which was made from piled and carved snow. The diamond refers to human systems, the circle to natural systems. The diamond within the circle refers to the need for human systems to be adapted to the requirements of natural systems. In the terminology of design, ‘solving for pattern’ results in solutions that increase balance and harmony, and improve the health of the whole system.

And the footprints in the snow…?

… were made overnight by a hare.

© Martin Hill and Philippa Jones ‘Solve for Pattern’ Albert Burn Saddle, Mt Aspiring National Park, New Zealand 2012

More recently, the human figure has been added to your repertoire of symbolic forms…

It is becoming clear that we are entering the Anthropocene era in which humans are the most powerful organisms on earth. As such, we are the only species that can correct the current trajectory towards ecological and social collapse.

We made a number of these images for the ‘Watershed Project’ in 2012 and 2013 during a residency on the Albert Burn Saddle [the lowest point in a long mountain range separating the Matukituki River East Branch from the Albert Burn]. Since it is the watershed from which flow two major rivers, I decided to focus the project on the water cycle. However, we used the title ‘Watershed’ because humanity is now at a watershed in its relationship to natural systems.

How were the figures made?

One of the figures, ‘Rainforest Guardian’, was made in a wooded river valley using moss and dead tree stumps. We directed smoke from our campfire through the trees, to add to the atmosphere. Guardianship of the native forests of the world is a priority for both biodiversity and reducing the impact of climate change.

‘Ice Guardian’ was the result of an accident with ice we were making for another work. When it broke, it was a triangle which resembled nearby Mount Aspiring. Philippa formed the human guardian figure seen through the ice at dawn. It is imperative that we guard the earth’s remaining ice because it is that ice which stabilises the climate and sea levels. To do this we must eliminate the carbon emissions that cause global warming.

‘Burning Issues’ takes a different approach. The figure is made of snow grass. It is burning; the human figure is being consumed. It refers to the potential worst-case scenario if humans do not respond adequately to the issues posed by anthropogenic climate change.

In 1999 you began the ‘Millennium Project’. Can you tell me about that?

For the ‘Millennium Project’ we created a series of sculptures from different materials found in a variety of environments. The linking design element was that each ephemeral installation was made up of exactly 2000 elements. In the image entitled ‘2000 Circles’, 2000 holes were punched through an ice disc. Shot at dawn on Mount Ruapehu, the light is bursting through one of the holes as the sun rises.

How did you develop the more complex architecture of shapes such as the arch in ‘Synergy’?

In 2009, we were invited to participate in a project which involved four New Zealand artists each of whom were asked to respond to a historical introduction to the Lake Wanaka environment; an introduction made for us by the local Maori community. The creative approaches varied among the different artists. Since I live in the Wanaka region, I chose to respond to the origins of the name, which in Maori means ‘place of learning’. I decided to learn something new.

In my research into naturally evolved design, I learned that the modes of construction that make the strongest forms with the least material harness the forces of compression and tension. [The American architect and systems theorist] Buckminster Fuller named this system ‘tensegrity’ [meaning ‘tensional integrity’].  The sculpture – which was made from dried reed sticks held apart in suspension by a network of linen threads – used these principles to create a semi-circular structure. This was installed on the lakefront and, once again, the reflection in the water completed the circle. ‘Synergy’ is a term used to describe the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts, which, in this case, is an emergent property of tensegrity. In this way, the sculpture is itself a demonstration of the concept it represents as an artwork.

Time also plays an important role in natural evolution. Your work ‘Stacked Stone Sphere’ alludes also to the cycles of the seasons and passage of time.

This work was created during the making of a film by James Blake and Joey Bania called ‘A Delicate Canvas’ (2011), which documents our art practice. The sphere, which references the planet earth, was made from schist rocks we found scattered over the mountainside. The idea was to make it look incredibly vulnerable, perched on the very edge, ready to fall… suggesting the delicate relationship between human systems and the natural world that supports them. It was made in summer and the first shot was made at dawn. We returned in winter to photograph it again, showing the seasonal change.

Time is also a feature of the series ‘One Life One Place One Year’

Yes, we were commissioned to make a body of work on and around a lakeside property which the landowner had named Just One Life. It was a beautiful setting on a peninsula with a backdrop of mountains. Philippa and I spent a year researching and making ephemeral works throughout the seasons and brought the images together in a one-off book entitled ‘One Life One Place One Year – an exploration of place, time and ecology’. We learned a lot through this process and later applied it when embarking on the ‘Watershed Project’.

‘The Fine Line Project’ is your most wide-reaching, encompassing the globe.

It is a work-in-progress with ten of the planned twelve images now completed.* The project consists of works made at high points distributed along a line that encircles the globe. It symbolises the interlinked and interdependent network of natural systems that connect us all in the web of life. So far, we have made works in the Arctic and Antarctic, Canada, Iceland, Kenya, Madagascar, New Zealand, Scotland, Switzerland and the USA.

In each location, we used materials found locally and distinctive to the place. One of the early sculptures was made in 1995 in the Yosemite National Park, USA. It was created using granite sand trickled by hand to form the relief design of a spiral on a flat rock perched high above the canyon. Yosemite Valley was formed by the action of glaciers millions of years ago, and natural erosion is still in process today. The use of granite sand on the rock gives the appearance of the spiral having been carved into the slab.

How have your images been received by the public?

The sculpture photographs have been very popular with the public internationally for over twenty years. We presented a solo exhibition – ‘Temporal Landscapes’ – at Inter Gallery in Beijing’s 798 district in September 2015, which was very well received. (The gallery still holds some of our work, for those that might be interested.)

However, although the works are liked, we have more recently discovered a disturbing trend in the way they are read. Some people, particularly those who have been raised in the digital age, misunderstand and assume that our images are created artificially using Photoshop. This is, of course, not the case and conceptually it negates the basic purpose of the work, which is to put people in touch with the reality of nature and the wonder of its cyclical ‘operating system’.

Is there one image that has proved particularly potent for audiences?

One of the most popular works we have made is ‘Stone Circle’ (1994) [at the top of this article]. The unique properties of the pumice stone we found at Lake Taupo, in the volcanic region of New Zealand, is that it is very soft and light because it is full of air. Making use of these properties, we simply poked a flexible green stick through a series of stones and bent it into a semi-circular arch, setting this in the shallow water at the edge of a lagoon. The effect was achieved with a very low camera angle and the warm back lighting of dawn. I think that an important quality of this work is its simplicity.

What have you come to understand, as your collaborative art practice has developed over the years, that you did not understand before?

Well, we learned how hard it is to make a living from making art without selling out to commercial pressures! But, more importantly, we have learned that being personally engaged in an ongoing creative mission gives our lives together more meaning. This, in turn, feeds back into our work – completing the circle.

* The two final elements that complete the ‘Fine Line’ project have since been realised:

  • Sculpture No 11 was assembled on the crater rim of Yasur Volcano, Tanna Island, Vanuatu, in 2018.
  • Sculpture No 12 was constructed from the snows of Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand, in 2019.

Biographical Notes

Martin Hill was born London, UK, in 1946. He received a Diploma in Art and Design and went on to win a number of design awards while working in London, Nairobi, Sydney and Auckland. Philippa Jones was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1950. She has a Bachelor of Arts (art history).

Martin and Philippa have been creative partners since 1992. Together, they design and construct temporary sculptures, which Martin then photographs. They have exhibited in Asia, Europe and Oceania. They won the Pingyao International Festival of Photography International Artists Award in 2014 and, in 2016, First Prize (conceptual category) at the international Fine Art Photography Awards (FAPA). Individually and together, their work has featured in three books and the film ‘A Delicate Canvas’ by Joey Banya and James Blake (2011).

Photo: © Ian McDonald

This article was first published in Chinese, in the April 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. First published in English at Talking Pictures in January 2020.

The book, ‘Fine Line: Twelve Environmental Sculptures Encircle the Earth’ [ISBN: 9781988538914] is now available from Bateman Books, New Zealand, and internationally through Fishpond.

A BBC2 documentary featuring the work of Martin Hill and Philippa Jones went to air in the UK on 11 October 2021.